For when you're angry
In which you will, indeed, need all your anger (and all your joy) now
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read preach rant this essay for you as part of The Secret Field Notes Podcast, Episode 28. (This is a private podcast feed of occasional Field Notes essays for paid subscribers. If you want to become a paid subscriber, here’s the link.)
Most of you know that one of my literary heroes is Madeleine L’Engle. In her famous book A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit says to our heroine, “Stay angry, little Meg. You’ll need all of your anger now.” If it’s been a minute since you read the book, this moment happens as Meg along with her brother Charles Wallace and their friend Calvin are headed into a rescue mission. The three celestial women who have guided them thus far can go no further and they are on their own now, three children facing the darkness to save Meg and Charles Wallace’s father and defeat “It.” Meg has spent most of the book struggling to contain and manage her anger or hide it or get over it but with that line, Mrs. Whatsit gives her permission to channel it into goodness and purpose right as she steps into the unknown.
Those of us who were once Good Christian Ladies™ have been told for so long that nice girls don’t get angry, we are completely out of touch with how it feels to acknowledge and work with our anger. And that has to end. Because our soul-centred anger is a gift, a powerful force we can steward with care and intention as we rise up at injustice.1
I have heard from so many people who are angry right now - rightfully. It's anger at injustice, anger at the loss of women’s rights, anger over police brutalities and failures, anger over children murdered in classrooms, anger at betrayal and poverty and bad legislation and broken promises, anger over abuse. It is real, legit, righteous anger. And some part of us worries that we’re too angry now, like we will never recover from this sort of rage.
They ask me for solutions, for prayers, for tips on getting rid of that anger.
“You seem so settled,” they say wistfully. “Can you help me figure out how to not be so angry?”
Because I am angry.
I am PLENTY angry. Furious. Incandescent.
So don’t ask me how to not be angry right now.
I’d argue that if you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.
Our task now is to learn how to make friends with our anger and steward it well.
I believe the Holy Spirit is active in that space of righteous anger to wake us up from the sleeping numbness of our culture, shocking us out of our nice little lives centred on avoiding conflict or inconvenience or complacency (especially those of us who have enjoyed no small measure of privilege in this world, says the straight white married financially-secure mum of four).
So no, I don’t want you to get over it. I want you to do something different than what many of us were taught, implicitly or explicitly.
I want you to pay attention to your anger. And learn to steward it well as an invitation from God.
First a confession: I am not historically great at being angry. For those of you who do the whole Enneagram thing, I'm a Type 9 and so famously out of touch with my own anger, it's legend. I can have whole fights with people in my own head for a year without them ever knowing I was the slightest peeved. I can stuff and deny my own anger down for years in a misguided effort to keep the peace. My default is to deny my anger then you mix that up with the Church's historic nervousness about angry women, a Canadian culture that highly values politeness and minding one’s business, and you see that I have had some serious catching up to do at being, oh, a functioning person.
I've had to learn that instead of distracting myself, instead of satiating or denying anger with numbing techniques like a crammed schedule or “not my circus, not my monkeys” excuses or protestations of "I'm fine! It’s fine! Everything is fine!" or bright-siding the situation (a verb I practically invented, you’re welcome and I’m sorry), I had to learn to see my anger as an invitation from the Holy Spirit.
Our anger is a reasonable, legitimate response to something which is also angering to God. This anger is also an invitation to pray, to advocate, to learn, to become educated, to support, to protest, to push back the principalities and powers of this world our own selves instead of waiting for someone else to do something. (Stop waiting for the grown-ups to show up and sort things out; it is time to be the grown-ups.)
Be angry. You should be angry. Pay attention to your anger so that you can steward it well.
We hear a lot about God's anger in Scripture- and it's almost all of the same things that are stirring us up right now. Cruelty to women,2 to the poor, to children, to the immigrant and refugee, to the vulnerable, the triumph of evil or ascendence of the wicked and abuses of power on the backs of the oppressed or marginalized. We're angry for good reason.
However I’ll be honest: once I began to let myself be angry, I ran headfirst into the truth about anger's relationship to justice: anger can serve as a great igniter but it can be inadequate for sustaining us over the long game.
Anger is our holy starting point, but it is Love who sustains the passion and directs it into life-giving transformation. Our anger gets us engaged, yes, but it is love and hope, joy and faith, community and discipline, rest and contemplation, strategy and solidarity that keeps us in the long game.
I want our passion to last longer than a viral hashtag. I want our work to be sustainable over the long haul. And I want that anger, that energy, that passion to be directed right towards peace-making and shalom-building and world-repair and so that means we also need to pay attention to joy.
RELATED READ: When we are despairing
Yes, joy. Imagine that! For me, I had to begin to pay attention to the work and the people who brought me great joy and hope while engaged in the work. I need to cultivate and practice joy in order to keep stewarding the righteous anger without being consumed. And that intersection - the intersection of my anger and my joy - turned out to be where my calling was hiding. Imagine.
Don’t be fooled: it’s a scary thing, a life-changing, paradigm-shifting thing, to honestly look our anger and our joy in the face, hold it up to the light of the Word and the Holy Spirit and our community and say, “I need to keep caring about this. I need to stay with this. I need to do something about this.” And then to stay faithful to it.
The mob will move on. Your well-stewarded anger and carefully-tended joy will keep you faithful.
When you're angry, be open to the invitation of the Spirit there for you. When you're joyful, be open to the invitation there. And then welcome what comes next, however mundane and ordinary and revolutionary. Consider the possibility that the Spirit is giving you permission to channel this anger into goodness and purpose right as you step into the unknown, an unknown filled with phone calls to MPs and emails to staffers, dangerous protests and heated political meetings, bad coffee in church basements and civil disobedience. Your job isn’t to get over your anger, your job is to learn to steward your anger well, in partnership with Love.
There is real challenge ahead of us in these coming months - we all see it. So with apologies to one of my literary heroes: Stay angry, stay joyful, my friends. We need all our anger and joy right now.
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This is an edited and updated version of an essay from 2020.
This probably doesn't need to be clarified but just in case: I’m not talking about sinful and self-indulgent anger here, not at all. I think most of us know the difference between selfish and righteous anger, even if we will only admit it to the furthest corners of our most honest hearts.
When I say ‘women’ I include trans women here.